June 20, 2013
Colombia tries peace talks with FARC to end long conflict
Colombia's government and rebels will sit down this week to start peace talks aimed at ending nearly half a century of conflict after a 10-year military offensive against the guerrillas failed to deliver a coup de grace.
President Juan Manuel Santos is attempting what many other leaders have tried but failed to do in the past - reach a negotiated deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and bring peace to Latin America's No. 4 economy.
The former defense minister has seen his popularity slide over the last year with former President Alvaro Uribe, for long a close ally, leading criticism that Santos has been too soft on the FARC. But a peace agreement before the next election in 2014 would all but guarantee Santos a second term.
While security has improved by leaps and bounds since a U.S.-backed offensive against FARC rebels and drug barons began a decade ago, the security forces have been unable to land a decisive blow. The FARC is still a threat and, although weakened, it has stepped up its attacks in the last few years.
Analysts say it is clear the conflict cannot be won by military means alone and the government has a greater chance of negotiating an end to the war from a position of strength than of completely wiping out the rebels.
"We take on these talks with moderate optimism but with the absolute conviction that it is an opportunity that we cannot waste," Santos told the U.N. General Assembly late last month.
Nearly two years of secret talks in Cuba led to the formal discussions, which start in Norway this week and then move to Havana. Santos hopes the peace process can be successful within months.
For many in rural Colombia, the stakes could not be higher.
"We're the ones who suffer, our families, our parents," said Sara Munoz, a 39-year-old mother of two children who is selling her house to get away from the violence in the province of Cauca. "We have to leave our houses, leaving our homes abandoned to flee to another part because we have children."
At primary schools in Cauca, school children have regular safety drills, falling to the ground and huddling together as teachers mimic the sound of gunfire outside.
There is still frequent fighting in the province and Colombian troops that patrol its unpaved roads in armored vehicles nickname it "Cauca-kistan," comparing the fighting there with the war in Afghanistan.